“Do you hookah?” read the sign on a building as I passed by in the trolley.
Not yet, I thought. But as a onetime smoker who enjoyed the ritual of it, I was curious. So I rang up Harry Sevel, owner of the Egyptian Tea Room in the College Area (619-265-7287; egyptiantearoom.com).
“I think Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland popularized the term ‘hookah’ for water pipe,” began Sevel. “Technically, hookahs are used in India as pipes for opium and hashish. The tobacco pipes we use here are known in Egypt as shisha pipes.” (Hookah smoking began in Turkey about 400 years ago and quickly spread to Egypt and from there to the rest of the world.) But, thanks to Alice, most places in the U.S. use the incorrect term.
“We are more of a traditional-style hookah lounge,” Sevel continued. “We also serve as a café and tea room. You can come in and get pita and hummus or a sandwich, maybe with a cappuccino or pot of tea. A lot of college students and young adults come in — they read, play chess, do their homework. It’s a social place. You need to be 18, though.”
Once inside, you order your tobacco and let the staff set up your pipe. “There’s a bowl that holds the tobacco, and there are coals that sit on the top of the hookah. Then there’s a pipe that leads down from the tobacco into the water and a hose that attaches to the side of the pipe. When you inhale, it creates a vacuum that sucks the smoke from the bowl into the water, filtering out any particulates. I do sell multiple-hose hookahs, but the single-hose hookah gives a better smoking experience, so that’s what we serve here. We allow a maximum of four people to share a pipe. Everybody gets an individually wrapped mouthpiece.”
If the setup sounds a trifle involved, well, there’s a reason. “With hookah, the tobacco is mixed with things such as fruit pulp, molasses, and other flavorings, so it’s a wet product. And, unlike cigarettes, hookah tobacco doesn’t have a lot of chemicals or slow-burning agents in it. So you need to have a gentle heat source. We use a special type of coal that allows the tobacco to release the aroma. It produces a mild smoke, which you need if you’re going to taste the infusions.”
Those infusions make up over 50 flavors at the Egyptian Tea Room. Sevel said his most popular are house blends. “The Scarab tastes like a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie, while the Cleopatra tastes like Fruity Pebbles cereal.” Prices range from $13.75 to $17.75, depending on the quality of tobacco. A pipe will last 45 minutes to an hour.
Ethan Hire, manager at Fumari in the Gaslamp (619-501-0613; fumari.com) boasted that his is the oldest hookah lounge in town. “It’s modeled after San Diego. You’ll see some historical accents from the culture that spawned the hookah, but that’s not the theme of the lounge. We don’t have a bunch of couches lying around unorganized. We have beer — we’re an 18-and-up place — but no wine or cocktails. We have different music for different nights.”
Happy hour (7 to 8 p.m.) prices at Fumari are $11 for single-flavor pipes and $12.50 for mixed. After happy hour, it’s $22 for single flavor, $25 for mixed. “My favorite is the lemon mint. If people enjoy specific flavors in other forms, they will most likely enjoy them in hookah.”
The appeal of the hookah lounge, said Hire, is that “It’s the modern equivalent of a cigar-and-cognac lounge from the ’30s and ’40s. The idea is to sit around a table with your friends and be comfortable while sharing in a mutual activity that doesn’t take your attention away from the social experience.” But, he noted, if you want to focus on your hookah, you can ask to manage your own charcoal. “Some people like what I call a harsh bowl — hot, strong, a ton of smoke. If that’s what you want and you’re an experienced smoker, then by all means...”
Sammy at Excalibur Hookah Lounge in Hillcrest (619-260-8099; excaliburhookahlounge.com) said he offers 75 flavors, with hookah prices from $15 to $19. “Our most popular flavors are melon dew and strawberry. We can also put milk, wine, or juice into the pipe instead of water. We’re a 21-and-up place. We serve beer and wine, and we have a DJ.”